Observations have taken up a considerable amount of my time this summer, both in terms of carrying them out, and in time spent ruminating on them – their necessity, their structure, their ultimate agenda, their usefulness. The stage in the process that has been awarded my greatest attention is the post-observation discussion. Looking for inspiration on Google, I came across Yurekli’s “The six-category intervention analysis: a classroom observation reference” published in the ELTJ.
Yurekli identifies the importance of observations – as evaluative tools, measuring teacher performance against an institutional (individual?) standard and as a developmental tool. Yurekli states that whether under the auspices of development or evaluation, observations are stressful for both parties involved. The stage in the observation process that has the greatest influence on how stressful/ negative / positive / valuable the experience can be is the post-observation discussion – “the way the post-observation is conducted may, to a great extent, define the ultimate process and progress of the whole outcome of the observation” (p.303). The manner in which the post-observation meeting is conducted is therefore the main area of enquiry in this study.
The main cause of stress (Yurekli cites William, 1989 here) in the post-observation dialogue is the fact that it is nigh on impossible for the discussion to remain entirely non-judgemental. “‘Feedback’, as the concept is commonly understood, requires a certain degree of ‘view’, ‘perspective’, ‘value’, and ‘stance’ on a given experience or issue. As such, feedback implies an intervention based on some conception formed earlier by the observer on what s/he sees as a good teacher or lesson” (p.304). So the post-observation is the stage in which the observer intervenes; the observer must ascertain how to intervene to ensure a positive post-observation session. Yurekli acknowledges that the session “should… be structured according to the preferences of both” (p.304) the observer and observee, but it seems it is the observer’s responsibility to identify what those preferences are. The article then details the six-category intervention analysis developed by Heron in 1976, a framework for fostering interpersonal relationships within the feedback on performance experience.
The six categories are:
Prescriptive, Informative and Confronting; all ‘authoritative’ modes of intervention. Authoritative as they are more the result of a hierarchical relationship, a top-down approach, where the observer has control of the procedure.
Cathartic, Catalytic and Supportive; all ‘facilitative’ modes of intervention. Here the hierarchy is less visible, the relationship more equal with the observee being encouraged to reflect on their own performance and how to improve, rather than being ‘told’ by a higher being.
Yurekli does not suggest that one intervention type should be used in preference of another, but that the observer should be aware of the range in modes of intervention and “apply them as appropriate to the context” and that “the overuse or misuse of any of the suggested categories may result in unwanted outcomes” (p.306). The article continues to detail the study into intervention preferences of both observer and observee in the School of Foreign Languages Preparatory Programme in a Turkish private university. Teachers and observers were asked to state their preferences on a five-point ‘Likert-type’ scale. The results showed that the supportive intervention was the most preferred, and the confronting mode the least. Yurekli also observed that teachers and observers were very similar in their preference. The only exception being the informative mode, teachers seemed to favour this mode more than observers.
In the results and discussion section, Yurekli states that, in line with current research, “the most effective learning and professional development comes from self-exploration, self-discovery, and self-reflection; however the success of the process clearly depends on teacher willingness to engage in such behaviour” (p. 310) or at least having the knowledge of how to engage in such behaviour. Yurekli acknowledges that some teachers need to be trained in how to be reflective in their practice. In the absence of training for observers on how to train teachers to be reflective, Yurekli concludes that observers should be wary of imposing a desired intervention on observees and instead be willing to utilise certain modes that would not be their preference, but would make the observation experience a much more positive one for the teacher.
It is interesting that Yurekli’s article looks at the issue from how the observer intervenes rather than considering the manner of involvement of the observee. I have been reflecting on the observations I have been part of over the summer. To put this in context, I am part of an observation team tasked with observing the summer influx of teachers who are employed on the large pre-sessionals we run. These formal observations are obviously part of our quality assurance measures, but they are also very much intended to be developmental. These observations often take place within the first two weeks of the pre-sessional. Many of the observees are returners and work with us every summer, some are new to teaching at our university, some new to teaching EAP, some will come back next year, others will not. Cogitating on these observations, it struck me that I tend to encounter three broad types of observee in terms of how they participate in the observation process: the diligent, the disinterested and the deluded. Heron’s six categories of intervention seem to suit these three observee-types rather well.
The diligent respond well to informative feedback as they want to learn more about their craft. They also respond well to cathartic intervention, where they get the opportunity to talk about how they felt about the lesson / observation. The diligent also need supportive intervention; they care about what they do and like to be acknowledged for it. The deluded – those who think standing in front of a class for 90 minutes talking at the students is communicative teaching – need the observer to be more confronting in their intervention, choosing problematic areas that need to be addressed as a priority. Catalytic intervention works here too – directing the observee to self-discovery (strong evidence collection during the actual observation is key though). The observee-type that I find the most difficult in post-observation feedback is the disinterested. For the disinterested the observation process is a hoop to jump through, the teacher is not invested in the experience, they simply want to get it over and done with. From my experience this type of teacher needs supportive intervention, but also seems to want a prescriptive intervention – to sit and be told – perhaps as this is the quickest route out of the discussion? These observations are the ones that cause me the greatest concern. Is it possible to un-disinterest someone?
The answer may be in giving some thought as to why observees might feel disinterested. If they are in the UK earning a decent wage for 10 weeks before jetting off again, why should they invest their time and energy in an institution they may not come back to (other than they are being paid to do just that)? Or, have these observees been teaching so long, in so many different contexts that they see no potential for personal development in the process any more? Perhaps there is a deterministic notion that hierarchy is always at play and, even if the observee disagrees with the observer, they are not really ‘in a position’ to do so, so what is the point? I think that the answer may lie in how much we invest in teachers. It is an idealised notion (and a logistical challenge) I know, but in an attempt to foster self-reflection (often the disinterested are not so adept at this and need a bit of encouragement as Yurekli observes), could the formal observation not be ‘flipped’ – by this I mean come nearer the end of the course rather than in the initial weeks of the course, and after a series of peer observations (involving the intended observee observing the observer as well as other teachers) have been scheduled and the teacher has had time to acclimatise to the programme they are teaching on? Wouldn’t this make the observee feel that development was more important than evaluation and therefore feel more invested in?
This year we made it possible for teachers to take part in peer observations. This was voluntary, and as such bypassed the disinterested, but peer observation has a future on large pre-sessionals. Teachers were positive about the experience, commenting that they felt they had learnt a lot from these ‘informal’ observations and that they went better (in terms of how the observees felt about their performance in the observation) than their formal observation. They also saw benefit in observing how others went about teaching EAP – so valuable in the absence of much formal training in the field. Some consideration needs to be given as to whether peer observations should be recorded in any way – more and more I think they should be paperless, as soon as anything is committed to paper ‘view’ ‘perspective’ ‘stance’ come into play again and the process runs the risk of becoming evaluative. Therefore to move away from evaluation the onus of the peer observation should not be on the observer watching the observee, but the observer thinking in terms of their own teaching and how the students are responding to the lesson and the material being used.
Formal observations are a necessity when so many new teachers are employed for such a short, incredibly intense experience. I am, though, at odds with the evaluative / developmental dichotomy inherent in formal observations. I, like most, want the observations I’m involved in to be a valuable and enjoyable experience for both observee and observer (and often they are). Yet, if done once on a 10 week pre-sessional course it is impossible to disassociate the evaluative observation from the developmental. I fear that as long as pre-sessionals continue to have one formal observation it will only serve to perpetuate a hierarchical relationship in observations that runs the risk of benefitting neither party, and maintaining a level of disinterest in some I find soul destroying.